Dirty Intimacy

People hoping for better sex in their marriages or long-term relationships often talk about developing deeper intimacy. Well, not all intimacy is created equal and the dirty kind can have a horrible impact on your sex life. By dirty intimacy, I mean the kind of intimacy that demands a certain response from your partner. “When people say they want deep and profound intimacy, they usually envision a bottomless pool of unconditional positive regard, trust, security and acceptance—in other words, other-validated intimacy.” (p.105) I call it dirty because it comes with a cost —If I share with you and you had better…..— Dirty intimacy reaches a limit as soon as one partner says something that the other cannot affirm, agree with, or match in their own experience.  This severely limits the allowable topics between partners, and this blocks the growth of clean intimacy.

With clean intimacy, people are able to disclose about themselves even if their partner disagrees or responds in a way they don’t like. Schnarch refers to this as self-validating intimacy, or intimacy that does not demand the partner’s OK. Long-term relationships require the development of clean intimacy so that couples can disclose about topics and subject matter in their relationship that the other may not like! Think about it, difficult topics need to be discussed in long-term relationships or couples slide into patterns of falseness or intractable stand-offs. In couples’ therapy, seeing breakthroughs in clean intimacy can be especially gratifying to watch. When a person can find the courage to express who they really are to their spouse no matter what response may come, there is an aliveness and strength in that person that is difficult to describe. Sometimes that aliveness is threatening to the other, but other times, it just amazes them. They are awed and wowed by their husband or wife in a way they haven’t been for a long time.

Clean intimacy helps us to be “accurately known by (our) partners”. And as we individually grow, we are in a better position to receive our partners for who they honestly are and are becoming. What freedom! Clean intimacy allows for the ability to offer and receive our truest selves to one another. And that, my friends, is a real turn-on!

How do you have clean intimacy in your relationship? 

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. It is my resource of the month and you can read my review by clicking here. 

Sexual Stalemate

You know the sexual stereotypes, and they go beyond “honey, I have a headache”. It is common to hear the joke that nothing kills sexual desire like marriage. If we move into long-term relationships or marriage, are we killing our sexual drive?  The problems around sexual desire can grow intractable, feeling less and less like a difference of opinion and more and more like a standoff with deadly weapons. Why do sexual desire problems grow into battlegrounds like this?

Dr. Schnarch, in his book, Intimacy and Desire, brings the problem of unequal sexual desire under the spotlight and describes the intensity that the problem can bring into marriage. He spells out that there is nearly always a low desire partner and a high desire partner, no matter the actual frequency of sex in the relationship. It makes sense when you think about it, even if the two of you want the same thing, one of you wants it more than the other. Perhaps surprising to some, he finds that half the time, the low desire partner is the man and the other half of the time, it is the woman. (p.9) As desire level diverges, a certain insidious stalemate can develop.

“He (the low desire partner) feels oppressed, pressured to want sex and have sex, badgered by his mate’s higher desire. The high desire partner understands tyranny too: She feels pressured to have sex when and how it’s available, because opportunities may be few and far between. She has to settle for ‘getting lucky’ instead of being wanted, and act grateful for mediocre sex.” (p.91)

What this quote describes is the interesting way that the low-desire partner controls sex in the relationship. (p.33) Most low-desire individuals initially balk at this assertion, feeling that their position is the weaker one. They identify their own helpless feelings in the face of the pressure-cooker situation of their marriage. Motivation for change becomes a very real issue. “The low desire partner has nowhere to go. If she doesn’t develop more desire, she gets the blame. If she does, the high desire partner gets the credit. You supposedly created the desire in her. With nothing to gain and nothing to lose, the low desire partner isn’t highly motivated to make things better. She’s more prepared for rebellion and passive-aggression.” (p.49)

For many of you, I’m guessing this sounds all too familiar. And your identification with this problem puts you squarely in the category of normal. But to consider a sexual stalemate and invitation to newness is a challenge to anyone’s character and sense of personal ok-ness. Schnarch makes the claim that desire and wanting can be developed and grown. Both the high and low desire partner actually usually need to get more clear about their own wants and become more willing to express those wants. It is an emotionally risky choice to make!

Many couples are helped by therapy when they are stuck in sexual stalemate. For some of you, this might just be the confirmation you need to take that step. For others, what connection do you make? Do you sense the invitation to life on the other side of the stalemate?

What advice do you have for couples stuck in sexual stalemate?

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. For the month of October, I’ll continue writing on this topic. I invite your comments and questions. Click here to read my review.

Staying in Love in Real Life

Face it, there is absolutely nothing as exhilarating as falling in love. What’s it like for you? Do you lose your appetite? Lose sleep? Feel your heart lurch when you see your love? I don’t think I ate more than 3 bites in one sitting for about a month after I started dating my husband. Now that we’ve been married 20 years, no matter how wonderful the romantic dinners are, or the vacation get-away is, I eat just fine.

There are many ways that couples in long-term relationships lose their way. Feeling “out of love” and disconnected are actually normal experiences. But to evaluate your 7, 20, or 35-year experience next to the initial rush of romantic love is hardly the best way to understand the experience of long-term romantic love. Dr. Schnarch recounts an experience in therapy with a couple where he says this, “‘you can’t go back to the romantic love you shared early in your relationship…But that’s not the problem. You need to go forward. That’s what everyone needs to do: Your sexual desire has to come from an entirely new source. Lots of people find this more satisfying than what they had before.” (p.22) Did you catch that? MORE SATISFYING. But it’s different, coming from a different source.

Brain research actually confirms this. The areas of the brain that are engaged during initial romance are different than the areas that engaged in solid, long-term, connected love. Schnarch’s book claims that “your brain cannot maintain this revved-up state for long. ‘Many of us would die of sexual exhaustion if romantic love flourished endlessly in a relationship.’” I might have starved! So what does it mean to evaluate one’s long-term relationship without the pressure of expecting to rekindle something that really cannot be replicated? If we’re supposed to hope for more satisfying, then how does a couple get there? Can we still hope for intensity, emotional excitement, and sexual newness?

ABSOLUTELY.

A good first step is to evaluate your sense of self in your relationship. Schnarch writes about the sense of self as “how you see yourself, how your partner treats you, and how you think your partner sees you” (p.25). Work on one’s sense of self happens both within the relationship and individually. Many people miss the need for the individual work. When this type of work is successful, couples can break out of long-term patterns with their partners that discourage a growing sense of self. And that, my dear readers, is very enticing… sexually and otherwise.

 

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. For the month of October, I’ll continue writing on this topic. I invite your comments and questions. Click here to read my review of the book.

The Best Sex You’ve Never Had

A lot of couples that wind up in counseling complain of sexual desire problems. This is frequently experienced as an uneven desire for sexual intimacy—there is a low desire partner and a high desire partner, and the difference in desire is interpreted all kinds of ways. For many, the desire problems as the most distressing symptom they are experiencing in their marriage. In fact, many come to therapy wondering if waning sexual interest is a signal to move out of their marriage or long-term relationship.

It is not surprising that folks interpret sexual desire problems in this way. We are living in a culture a wee bit obsessed with sexual satisfaction. I did a training with 35 bright, motivated college students this weekend and they shared some of the pressure they feel around sexuality; to look, perform, and experience themselves and their partner as a virtual sexual gods/goddesses. Many of us marry expecting that we will experience the great, American sexual dream for the rest of our lives.  All those stories about waning sexual interest won’t apply to me, that’s the story of those fuddy-duddy people who never cared about sex. Sadly, when sexual desire problems emerge, far too many people give up, interpreting the problem as a terminal disease, a cancer that cannot be treated. The fact that sexual desire problems are very common and can be treated is not discussed very readily.

What if sexual desire problems were interpreted as an invitation to deeper, more mature connection from which a new type of sexual desire can emerge? My learning around treating couples with sexual desire problems led me to Dr. David Schnarch. He says, “(Sexual) desire problems can be useful to people and relationships. They push us to become more solid within ourselves. Sexual desire problems aren’t a problem in your marriage. Sexual desire problems are part of the normal, healthy processes of marriage.” (p.18) So, can there be satisfying sex on the other side of sexual desire problems in marriage? Absolutely. But that is the sex that far too many people never have. It’s the sex that comes after sexual desire problems have been carefully and sensitively worked through. It is the sex that comes when we say yes to the invitation into a deeper personal and relational process. And you may be surprised how you get there.

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. For the month of October, I’ll continue writing on this topic. I invite your comments and questions. Click here to read my review of the book.

Getting a Motherechtomy

My supervisor suggested to one of my colleagues that his client needed a motherechtomy. A motherechtomy in psychotherapy is an incredibly liberating procedure but the surgery itself? It’s a doozy! Nearly as complicated as a girlfriendechtomy or husbandechtomy!

This somewhat humorous description is meant to draw attention to a real developmental need. I’m not suggesting that we amputate relationships, but rather that we learn to live as individuals within them. The process is called individuation or differentiation. Here is one way of putting it; “differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you” (Schnarch, p. 56). Learning this important life task might enable you to stay in relationships in a healthy way rather than either staying in them at great cost to yourself or having to end them.

I often talk to clients about this in terms of being OK with facing certain realities. Are you willing to be OK with disappointing your mother? Can you be the disappointing son without fixing it? Are you willing to face your own tension as your spouse is angry or having a poor reaction to something without needing to fix it or change them? Are you willing to face your own jealousy in your romantic relationship as your own problem rather than it necessarily being a problem for the relationship?

Schnarch says that we confuse love with emotional fusion (p.64). In other words, my lack of ability to be OK when relationships are troubling is not necessarily a sign of love. It very well might be a sign of enmeshment or emotional fusion. We have become dependent on the OK-ness of a relationship or someone’s view of us to feel OK ourselves. Changing this requires courage and intentionality, but it is a process that is worth the effort.

I’m quoting Dr. David Schnarch in his book, Passionate Marriage.  Here’s his website: http://crucibletherapy.com/

 

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